By Steve Gunn
The will be trying to sew up a USHL playoff berth for the second year in a row. They will be trying to catch Youngstown in the race for second place in the Eastern Conference and secure a first-round bye in the playoffs.
Meanwhile, forward Anthony Del Gaizo will continue his quest to win the USHL scoring championship, and forward Matej Pekar will continue to battle for the league assist title.
The Lumberjacks will host the Omaha Lancers on Friday and Saturday at 7:15 p.m. at L.C. Walker Arena. The Lancers will pose a big challenge. They are 32-16-2 on the season, in second place in the Western Conference, and have already clinched a playoff sport.
The Jacks are 30-22-2, good for third place in the Eastern Conference. They have six regular season games remaining – the two home games this weekend, then road games at Central Illinois on April 6, Madison on April 7, the Team USA Under 17 squad on April 13 and Youngstown on April 14.
It looks like a playoff berth is all but in the bag for the Lumberjacks. Their magic number to clinch a spot is only four points.
The simplest way for the Jacks to clinch a playoff spot would be to win two of their final six games, which would bring them four points. On top of that, every time seventh-place Cedar Rapids loses, two points come off the Jacks’ magic number. Every time Cedar Rapids loses in overtime, one point comes off.
Making the playoffs will be historically significant for Muskegon. In their eight years in the USHL, the Jacks have never qualified two seasons in a row.
They made it in their first season, 2010-11. They missed out in 2011-12, made it in 2012-13, failed in 2013-14, made it in 2014-15, failed in 2015-16, and made it last year.
But the Lumberjacks would like to do more than just break that cycle and clinch a playoff spot. They would like to finish in second place in the Eastern Conference and secure a first-round playoff bye.
The top six teams in the Eastern Conference will make the playoffs. The first and second place teams will not have to play in the first round.
The third- and sixth-place teams, and the fourth- and fifth-place teams, will have to match up in a pair of short three-game playoff series, where two quick losses would spell elimination.
That’s a scenario the Lumberjacks would be happy to avoid, if possible.
But securing second place in the conference and avoiding a first-round playoff series will be challenging. The Lumberjacks are currently trailing second-place Youngstown by three points in the standings, and the Phantoms have been hot, with a 7-0-2 record in their last nine games.
Youngstown, like Muskegon, has six regular-season games remaining.
“Obviously we would love to finish in the top two,” said Lumberjacks Coach John LaFontaine, who also noted that the second place team will have home-ice advantage in a best-of-5 second round series. “That’s our goal. Youngstown and us each have six games left, and we play each other.”
LaFontaine said it’s possible that the Jacks’ last game of the regular season, in Youngstown, could determine who finishes in second place.
“They would have to falter by one point,” he said. “Then the last game could be for all the marbles, and we have the tie-breaker.”
If Muskegon and Youngstown end up tied in points, the Lumberjacks would get second place because they would have more regular season and overtime victories, LaFontaine said.
Del Gaizo battling for league scoring crown
This weekend’s Muskegon-Omaha series will feature a showdown between two players battling for the USHL overall scoring championship.
The Lumberjacks’ Anthony Del Gaizo currently has a slim lead with 38 goals and 27 assists for a total of 65 points. Omaha’s Flilip Suchy has 30 goals and 33 assists for 63 points. Waterloo’s Jackson Cates is third with 33 goals and 29 assists for 62 points.
Del Gaizo has a comfortable lead in the league goal-scoring race, 38-33 over Cates.
Muskegon’s Matej Pekar heads into the home stretch of the season in a three-way tie for the league lead in assists. Pekar, Chicago’s Graham Lillibridge and Waterloo’s Ben Copeland all have 37 assists.
Three other players are tied with 34.
Pekar is 10th in the overall league scoring race with 12 goals and 37 assists for 49 points.